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  1. Opinion

For Rays, stadium deal isn't personal, it's just ruthless baseball business

The translucent roof and other amenities of the proposed Ybor City stadium were mere details in the grand scheme of things. The real story was who was going to pay for the bulk of the $900 million stadium. And even though the Rays haven’t put a number on it, they’ve made it clear they are not going to be pitching in $450 million or more. (Populous Architects)
Published Dec. 14, 2018

The owners of the Tampa Bay Rays have said goodbye to their most popular players. Changed the team's name, colors and spring training home. Tossed aside century-old baseball strategies while winning more games than teams with payrolls twice their size.

They are logical, innovative and arguably brilliant.

And about as sentimental as the IRS.

That's not a criticism, by the way, it's an observation. A scouting report, if you will. And it's critical to understanding the current pursuit of a new baseball stadium in Tampa Bay.

Related: Start saying your goodbyes, Tampa Bay

Related: Did a Tampa lawyer's relationship with an investor hinder Rays stadium deal in Ybor?

Related: While Rays look elsewhere, Ybor landowners consider Plan B

Emotions, allegiances and teary-eyed fans have nothing to do with it. The eventual stadium decision will be based on a simple calculation:

How much will it cost the Rays to build a stadium compared to how much more money a new stadium might make for them.

That's it. Nothing else. That's one of the reasons the Rays will not be pinned down on how much they are willing to contribute to a stadium's construction.

The figure is presumably different in St. Petersburg than it would be in Tampa. And it's different in Tampa than it would be in Montreal. Or Portland. Or Connecticut.

Does that seem coldhearted? To Rays fans who have been told their love was reciprocal, I'm sure it does. But, to paraphrase a movie, this is business, not personal.

The Rays made that clear when they waited until baseball's winter meetings in Las Vegas to essentially announce they considered the Ybor City stadium financing proposal a joke. It was the business world's version of giving Tampa Bay a wedgie on national TV.

So where does that leave us?

Hopefully a little wiser. And less naïve.

This isn't really a negotiation. When it comes to Major League Baseball, the Rays hold all the cards. It's their team, and they'll say bye if they want to.

So leaders on both sides of the bay must approach this equation as the flip side to the Rays' calculation: How much is an MLB team worth to your market, and how much are you willing to spend on it?

Just like the team's point of view, that calculation will vary from city to city.

Look at Arlington, Texas, for instance. A relatively small outpost between Fort Worth and Dallas, the city depends on the Texas Rangers as a critical economic driver. And so the city was willing to increase its sales tax, hotel tax and car rental tax to fund a new $1.1 billion stadium. The team's portion of costs were also offset by increased taxes on ticket sales and parking. Cobb County in Georgia similarly opened its coffers to lure the Braves out of Atlanta.

Were these wise decisions?

Time will tell, I suppose.

But the point is that there are cities desperate to be called a Major League town, and they will spend an eye-popping amount of money to make it happen. Portland. Montreal.

And rest assured, the Rays and MLB will subtly flirt with those other cities to keep them salivating while also letting Tampa Bay know there are other options out there. That was part of the strategy behind the Las Vegas press conference carried live on MLB Network.

Does this mean the Rays already have one step out the door?

No, there are still advantages for Tampa Bay. The lease at Tropicana Field that runs through 2027 is a big one. And baseball would much prefer to put expansion teams in Portland or Montreal because they'll come with a probable $1.5 billion buy-in that the other 30 owners get to split.

There's also the question of territorial rights that can get sticky. The Seattle Mariners would want to be compensated for losing Portland as part of their fan base, for example.

Still, in the end, it's always going to return to that original calculation for the Rays:

How much will it cost to move, and how much will they reap?

That's why I wrote two months ago that the Ybor deal was already in trouble. The unsecured financing from the opportunity zone plan was a problem, but not the biggest hurdle. The deal-killer was Hillsborough only planning on coming up with $450 million of the $900 million cost.

That meant the Rays were going to have to spend $450 million. And that was never going to happen. Why? Because it doesn't make business sense to them. They'll likely get a better deal elsewhere.

And if you look at it that way, a stadium in Tampa is still within reach. Increase taxes on tourism-related businesses such as rental cars, hotels and cruise ships and the equation instantly changes. There are similar calculations that could make a new stadium in St. Pete viable.

In a nutshell, that's where we're at.

The Rays have a certain revenue stream in mind, and they're going to keep shopping until they find it. Tampa and St. Pete have a finite amount of resources and they'll decide how much they can devote.

So don't take it personally.

It's just the business of baseball.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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